(Sarah Crompton’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/10.)
‘There is not one minute of his dancing ever recorded. He lives through his roles. What a lucky guy. It adds to the mystery.” Mikhail Baryshnikov, the greatest male dancer of his generation, is talking about the greatest male dancer of all time, Vaslav Nijinsky.
The legend of Nijinsky has permeated ballet ever since Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes arrived in Paris in 1909. When asked if it was difficult to seemingly hang in the air when jumping, he replied: ‘No! No! Not difficult. You have just to go up and then pause a little up there.” Already a prodigy in St Petersburg, the dancer was a sensation in the west, praised not only for his leap, but also for his finesse – the curve of his arm, the angle of his head, his musicality – and the way he was able to melt his own personality into whatever part he was playing.
His performances revivified ballet and when he turned his attention to choreography, he revolutionised the possibilities of what dance could do. His L’Après-midi d’un Faune caused a scandal when it opened in 1912; the following year Le Sacré du Printemps precipitated a riot. His thinking was so ahead of its time, audiences were simply not ready for what they saw. He was the most celebrated male dancer in the world, a name on the lips of all cultured people.